Sit with a straight female friend as she browses Tinder, and you’ll start to see some patterns very quickly.
Group pics where you can’t tell which guy the profile belongs to? Check.
Ab shots? Double Check.
Poorly lit, glowering selfies? Triple check.
Perhaps you yourself are guilty of some of these crimes. But don’t recoil in shame — this is a safe space. Within the confines of this column, we’re all about education and self-improvement. When people say, “It’s not my job how to teach you to do better,” they’re referring to me, because it literally is my job.
I recently looked at the proper etiquette for receiving nudes. In that column, I emphasized the power of earnest appreciation over attempts at cleverness or feigned disinterest. Today, I want to reverse things and examine men’s anxieties around taking photos of themselves and offer some advice on how they might improve their selfie game.
How We Got Here in the First Place
To solve a problem, we must first understand its cause. So, why are men bad at taking selfies?
I’ve got one simple explanation: Men don’t grow up in a culture that forces them to objectify themselves. A 2004 study in the journal Sex Roles concluded that “mere exposure to objectifying media can play a significant role in the initiation of a self-objectified state along with its attendant psychological consequences for women.” In plain English: Women learn to see their bodies from an outside point-of-view, as objects of scrutiny rather than as subjects (i.e., themselves).
For the most part, men’s bodies aren’t severed from their subjectivities in the same way. Unless you’re a gay man who’s involved in a parallel culture of objectification or a black man who’s been taught to see his body as the object of fear, you likely aren’t being raised to consider your body as separate from yourself. That leads to discomfort and uncertainty. Jean, 30, from Brooklyn, says, “It’s weird being nailed down to a still image. Something about trying to present myself as attractive or interesting feels embarrassing.”
Plus, there just aren’t as many references available for men to figure out what a “good” selfie might look like. “Men take selfies at the gym. That’s basically all I can think of. So I have no point of reference, no place to start,” says Simon, 26, an actor from Australia. “And with camera apps, most of the filters ‘beautify’ in ways that aren’t always flattering,” adds Evan, 33, of Ann Arbor. “I’m a large guy, and having my features rounded and skin smoothed by apps feels like venturing into a presentation I don’t always want.”
Things will probably change as men grow up in a climate in which selfies have been normalized since they were kids, but right now, it means that men often have no idea how to frame themselves in photo form. As 24-year-old engineer Ralf puts it, “If the audience is in the same room as me, I don’t feel the same big knot in my chest. But taking a photo [by myself] feels like having to figure out how much is too much or too little, and how much skin should I show, and if I send them, is this going to be mocked?”
The fact that plenty of guys feel good in the mirror but can’t quite get comfortable with selfies shows that this isn’t just a body-image issue. “I like how I look in person fine, but I always hate photos [of myself],” Jean adds.
Ideally, we’d live in a world where nobody’s body was reduced to an object, where nobody grew up divorced from their corporeal form. We’re not there yet, though, and in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with guys learning to up their selfie game.
I’m glad you asked…
Show Me That Smile Again
“WHY WON’T MEN SMILE?” asks 34-year-old Chicago-based writer Alicia. “I’ve been using dating sites off-and-on since 2003, and men are terrified of smiling. Until smartphones became ubiquitous, dudes would use shitty webcams to take two identical photos of themselves scowling, lit only by their computer screens, looking like damn ISIS hostage videos.”
I get it! I really do — this is a case of do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do, because I’m not a smiler by nature. But smouldering is tough to pull off, and it’s a high-risk maneuver — miss and you land on the scowl. Besides, looking like a happy goofball is cute sometimes. Just look at Michael B. Jordan.
“But merritt,” I hear you cry, “I don’t have Michael B. Jordan’s good looks or ability to publicly enjoy anime!”
Again, I get it, but I think it’s still worth trying, because smiling conveys charm, fun and a good attitude. So if you can bear it, give it a shot.
Don’t Waste Another Minute on Lighting
Here’s a secret: Most people have an angle they prefer. Few people’s faces are perfectly symmetrical, so favoring your left or right side is totally normal. And finding and leaning on your best side isn’t cheating. You might want to vary things up once in a while so you don’t have an Instagram feed of nearly-identical pics, but figuring out which angles accentuate your best features is part of learning how to take selfies.
As for lighting, generally speaking, you want to go with something diffuse, i.e., soft, multi-point lighting rather than a single spotlight. That doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy a ring light — a specialized tool for makeup artists and the selfie elite. Just avoid bright single-point lights that can cast harsh shadows. (Sunlight, on the other hand, is perfect.) Whatever you’re lighting situation, avoid overly-dark shots, since your phone camera is probably going to deliver a low-quality image under those conditions. Finally, steer clear of fluorescent lighting (the kind you typically find in public bathrooms and locker rooms).
You know who looks great in fluorescent lighting? Nobody.
Never Stop Holding Down the Shutter Button
You’re not working with a finite roll of film, so don’t be afraid to take a bunch of photos and pick the cream of the crop afterwards. On an iPhone, you can hold down the shutter button to take a whole mess of pics you can sort through to find the one that works. Again: Not cheating!
It’s easy to imagine that the selfies you see are effortless, single shots taken in whatever conditions happen to be present. I promise you, that’s not the case. Kylie Jenner takes 500 shots to get a good Instagram post, so us mere mortals shouldn’t expect to get it right the first time (or even the 500th time).
Always Remember: You’re Not Your Selfie
Finally, some general reassurances for the selfie-averse: A photo isn’t a perfect representation of reality — it’s an interpretation based on many things, including the camera’s specifications. If you doubt how much the camera used can affect the outcome, just check out this set of photos comparing the same model at different lens focal lengths. This also goes some way toward explaining why you might look different in selfies versus candids — the camera’s focal length is likely different.
Regarding candids, some people (myself included) have a psychological tendency to believe that their worst photos are more “real” than their best ones. It’s easy to dismiss pictures in which we look good as the products of lighting and posing. It’s harder to recognize that a still image of us where we look bad is the product of the same forces — or that the moment is a brief, normal distortion of our face that would’ve passed totally unnoticed in motion.
Lastly, the most important rule of taking selfies is that there are no rules, just have fun!
Yes, being able to present yourself to the world in a way that makes you look attractive is important. But it’s more important to like yourself. Taking selfies — even ones you don’t post publicly — can contribute to that.
And if it doesn’t?
Just make your Twitter avatar a cartoon pterodactyl and don’t worry about it.
merritt k is the host of the podcasts Woodland Secrets and dadfeelings, and can be found on Twitter at @merrittk. She last wrote about the American obsession with the word “cocksucker.”
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